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Culver student surprises grandfather on stage in China during New Year’s show

Tom Coyne

Aria Holtzman '27 sings with her grandfather, Shaojing Zhang, while her mother, Qi, watches. (Photo provided)


Aria Holtzman ’27 surprised her grandfather, Shaojing Zhang, the conductor of the Shenyang Philharmonic, by walking on stage while he was filming a TV show in China celebrating the Lunar New Year.

Holtzman said her grandfather, who she hadn’t seen in person for five years, paused for a moment when he was told they had a surprise for him. Holtzman and her mother, Qi Holtzman, then walked on stage.

Holtzman said her grandfather was so focused on the performance, it took him a moment to realize who they were. Then he started crying.

“It was crazy. It was really nice after not seeing him for so long,” she said. “It was so much fun.”

Her mother called it an “unforgettable moment.”

“It was a touching moment of tears and joy,” she said. 

The program, with the theme of “Bringing Joy to Home,” aired Wednesday night in Shenyang, a city of more than 9 million people in northeast China. It was broadcast throughout Liaoning Province, which has more than 46 million residents.

Lunar New Year is the most important holiday in the Chinese calendar, a time to gather with family, reconnect with friends and indulge in food and drink. 

The person directing the show asked Zhang, who also is a cellist and opera singer, to conduct the show. When the director learned that Zhang hadn’t seen his granddaughter in five years, she contacted Qi Holtzman about surprising her father.

Qi Holtzman said she and her daughter jumped at the opportunity.

“At 82 years old, my dad is optimistic and energetic, spreading music around the city. His life is simple and ordinary … quietly influencing me and those around him,” she said. “I am so grateful to have my dad in my life and I hope Aria can carry the spirit and passion of her grandpa, chasing her dream fearlessly.”


Aria Holtzman backstage with her grandfather, Shaojing Zhang. (Photo provided)

Holtzman, who has taken vocal lessons, said she thought she might be intimidated going up on stage to sing “You Raise Me Up” in Mandarin with her grandfather, but she wasn’t. The show was recorded in front of a crowd of about 100 sponsors. But if anything went wrong, they’d stop and reshoot it.

After the recording, they went to a recording studio to improve the sound quality.

“When I was recording after the actual performance, it was really relaxed,” she said. “It was really comfortable the whole time,” she said.

 Holtzman’s mother was grateful that Culver allowed her to go on the nine-day trip, arranging for her to keep up with her schoolwork remotely, calling it a “once in a lifetime experience.”

Holtzman said the hardest part of the trip was dealing with jet lag. Shenyang is 13 hours ahead of Culver. She arrived back at 7 a.m. Monday and had to go to classes that day.

“I was so tired,” she said.

She said one of the best parts was walking around the city and seeing where her mother grew up. Holtzman, who was born in California and lived in Switzerland for five years, now lives in Hinsdale, Illinois, west of Chicago. She said she’s only been to China a few times.

“So going back is a really good memory. It was a lot of fun,” she said.

Aria Holtzman recording in a studio to improve the show's audio quality. (Photo provided)


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